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False Pregnancy in Dogs

False pregnancy is when a female dog who is not pregnant starts to show signs of pregnancy, such as mothering behavior or nursing, without producing puppies. This condition is also referred to as phantom pregnancy or pseudopregnancy. Read more about the signs, diagnosis, and treatment of false pregnancy here.

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When does false pregnancy occur in dogs?

False pregnancy can occur in an intact female dog regardless of whether or not she has been mated. It occurs 4-9 weeks after her estrus, or heat cycle. False pregnancies do not happen in spayed female dogs.

A false pregnancy can occur at any age and does not necessarily follow every estrus. The severity and duration of clinical signs can vary not only from dog to dog but also from one heat cycle to the next in the same dog.

Causes of False Pregnancy in Dogs

The exact cause of a false pregnancy is unknown. What is understood is that after an estrus cycle, a female dog’s ovaries begin to produce hormones whether she is pregnant or not. These hormones prepare the uterus to receive fetuses and maintain the pregnancy.

If a dog does not become pregnant, after 4-6 weeks these hormone levels decrease, and this can sometimes send a signal to the body stimulating mammary gland development and other symptoms of a false pregnancy. Some female dogs will also show symptoms of false pregnancy 3-4 days after a spay surgery when the ovaries and uterus have been removed.

Symptoms of False Pregnancy in Dogs

  • Nesting
  • Mothering activity or guarding toys/small objects
  • Restlessness
  • Lethargy or loss of interest in physical activity
  • Vomiting
  • Decreased appetite
  • Abdominal distension
  • Mammary gland enlargement
  • Brownish or watery secretion from the mammary glands

How are false pregnancies diagnosed in dogs?

The diagnosis of false pregnancy is often based on history and ruling out other possible causes for the clinical signs that your dog is showing. Blood work can be used to rule out things like pyometra, which is a life-threatening infection in the uterus. Ultrasound can be used to diagnose if your dog is pregnant after day 28 of pregnancy. Radiographs (x-rays) can also diagnose pregnancy, but not until day 45.

Treatment for False Pregnancy in Dogs

Mild cases of false pregnancy do not require treatment and will resolve in about 2-3 weeks. If the dog appears physically ill, symptomatic treatment can be started. This can include antiemetics to decrease vomiting and anorexia, or diuretics to reduce mammary secretions and fluid retention.

Your vet may also recommend using warm or cold packs on the mammary glands to decrease inflammation and minimize the stimulation that promotes lactation. If your dog is acting very anxious or aggressive, your vet may prescribe sedatives or tranquilizers. In rare, very serious cases, hormonal treatment may be required.

Preventing False Pregnancy in Dogs

Surgical removal of the ovaries and uterus - a spay surgery - is used to prevent future episodes of false pregnancy behavior. Ideally, you should wait until all symptoms have completely resolved before spaying. If your dog undergoes a spay surgery while she is experiencing false pregnancy signs, the signs may continue for several weeks after surgery.

Read more:

Does My Dog Have Mastitis? How to identify, treat, and prevent mastitis in nursing mothers

What You Need to Know About Spaying Your Female Dog

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